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House shuts down attempt to revive controversial school voucher bill

  • Members of the New Hampshire House vote on a range of bills sent by the Senate in the final weeks of the legislative session, May 10, 2018. Ethan DeWitt—Ethan DeWitt



Monitor staff
Thursday, May 10, 2018

An attempt to resuscitate a proposal for a school voucher program died in the House on Thursday, ending a major policy goal for Gov. Chris Sununu for the rest of the year.

In a 173-168 vote, representatives decided against sending the proposal to a committee of conference, which would have bought time to allow Senate and House lawmakers to negotiate a potential solution.

An original version of the proposal, Senate Bill 193, was pushed into interim study by the House last week. SB 193 would allow low-income parents who withdraw their child from a public school to use state adequacy funds to go toward private or parochial education. But opponents in the House had argued that it would hurt the budgets of school districts, and the bill was sent to further study, 170-159.

But the Senate attempted to revive the legislation, attaching it to a nonrelated bill to do with teacher preparedness training hours. That bill, House Bill 1636, also carried pieces of legislation to do with charter school facilities and the creation of a death benefit for school employees killed in the line of duty.

Sununu and other supporters had hoped the House would accept the last-ditch attempt and send it to a conference committee, allowing the Senate and House versions of the bill to be reconciled.

On the floor Thursday, Education Committee Chairman Rick Ladd, R-Grafton, said that the proposal’s underlying aims – to provide broader choice for children – should warrant a second chance.

“We owe it to these students in school that are there now,” he said. “We can’t kick this can down the road further and waste time. You’re only 9 years old once. You can’t repeat that.”

But others re-aired concerns about downshifting costs to school districts. And House Finance Chairman Neal Kurk, R-Weare, said that late addition of the voucher proposal was nongermane to the original bill and would not survive the committee of conference anyway.

“It makes no sense to enter into a committee of conference process that cannot possibly bear fruit,” he said.

Hanging in the air Thursday was a key factor: attendance. Last week’s 11-margin vote took place in a body with 62 of its members absent – many of them Republicans. On Thursday, attendance improved, rising to just 50 vacancies, but the gains weren’t enough to make the difference.

Speaking after the vote, Rep. Terry Wolf, R-Bedford, a member of the House Education Committee and proponent of the bill, called the decision disappointing but somewhat expected.

“We’ve spent a lot of time on this,” she said, speaking on tweaks made throughout the Senate and House processes. “I think it’s a big change. Republicans just weren’t ready to come together for it.”

Wolf said she didn’t think Republican members of the House had a fundamental opposition to the idea behind the program. But she said for some, the cost fears were insurmountable. “I think that the challenge was that people were truly concerned about how it would impact their local school systems,” she said.

In a statement, Ben Vihstadt, spokesman acknowledged the difficulty faced in the Legislature for the proposal – adding that “reforming New Hampshire’s education system will not happen overnight.” But if re-elected, Sununu would continue to press for the proposal, Vihstadt said.

“Governor Sununu has been a relentless champion of expanding educational opportunities for low income families – which is why he stood his ground and exhausted every possible opportunity to move this issue forward – and looks forward to continuing this discussion in the legislative sessions ahead,” Vihstadt said.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)